What is the modern role of a tax practitioner, in particular a tax attorney, in the United States? In an era in which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is underfunded, understaffed, and struggles to address its mission, tax attorneys play an important role as advocates for taxpayer rights.
Tax attorneys act as advocates who represent ordinary individual taxpayers in controversies with the IRS. These controversies include post-filing disputes, such as audits, as well as issues arising with the collection of assessed taxes. Many of these cases are resolved at the administrative level; those that cannot be resolved are litigated, most commonly in the United States Tax Court.
Tax attorney advocates matter because for millions of low-income families, filing a tax return is not just about reporting income but also a mechanism for claiming social benefits. And for the impoverished, the collection powers bestowed upon the IRS represent a threat to their ability to meet day-to-day needs. Meanwhile, the IRS increasingly relies on automated procedures and provides a decreasing level of human service for taxpayers. Further, the sweeping tax reform that was rushed into law in December 2017 added new challenges and workload for the overburdened administrative agency, as it had to train employees on the changes, design new forms, and issue public guidance for taxpayers.
Looking into the future, tax attorneys will continue to play a crucial role in defending taxpayer rights and advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable population. This Essay explores that role.
Michelle Lyon Drumbl is a Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Tax Clinic at Washington and Lee University School of Law.